4 toxic communication styles to avoid in your relationship
Being in a relationship isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
While you may float above the clouds when you first get together, it’s not unusual to experience arguments like electrical storms further down the track.
Some conflict is healthy. It can help your partner understand and meet your needs. But you need to know the best ways to deal with conflict to ensure it doesn’t escalate into something harder to bounce back from or repair.
The 4 markers of relationship failure
Renowned relationship expert, John Gottman, discovered four markers of relationship failure with 93 percent accuracy in predicting divorce.
Known as ‘The Four Horsemen’, these are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. All couples are likely to engage in these communication styles at some point. However, if consistently experienced, these counterproductive behaviours can have a very negative impact on your relationship.
Do you recognise these communication patterns in your relationship?
The first horseman is Criticism
This is the first behaviour typically used by couples in conflict. Criticism refers to attacking your partner’s character or personality, rather than the behaviour itself.
Criticism can make the receiver feel assaulted, rejected, and hurt.
This makes it different from a complaint, so it’s crucial to learn the difference.
Complaint – “I feel frustrated when you don’t help with the kids at bedtime.”
Criticism – “You’re so lazy and never think to help me!”
Solution – To get your message across, aim to use ‘I’ statements rather than pointing the finger and starting with ‘you’.
Consider a gentle start and express a positive need. Say things like –
“I feel …”
“I need ….”
While criticism doesn’t mean the end of your relationship, if it becomes the baseline for how you communicate it can pave the way for more intense and challenging communication patterns. And these can result in contempt.
The second horseman is Contempt
Contempt is a passive-aggressive behaviour where you show blatant disrespect for your partner. You assume a position of moral superiority over them. This may include sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery, or ridicule.
The receiver can feel despised and worthless as a result.
This behaviour is recognised as the single greatest predictor of divorce, so it needs to be eliminated ASAP!
According to The Gottman Institute, the antidote to contempt is building a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship.
One of Gottman’s mottos is ‘small things often.’ By regularly expressing appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you’ll create a positive perspective in your relationship that ‘acts as a buffer’ for negative feelings. The more positive you feel towards your relationship, the less likely you’ll feel or express contempt!
Aim for ‘the 5:1 magic ratio’ – in other words, five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction. By making regular deposits into your emotional bank account, you’re more likely to keep your relationship in the green.
Contempt: “You forgot to take the clothes off the line when you got home from work? Ugh. You are so incredibly lazy.” *Rolls eyes*
Solution: “I understand you’ve had a lot on at work lately, but could you please remember to take them off the line when I’m home late? I’d really appreciate it.”
The solution above is a great example of how you can turn a contemptuous statement into a respectful request, followed by a note of appreciation.
The third horseman is Defensiveness
Defensiveness behaviour is typically a response to criticism. When you feel attacked and unjustly accused, it’s natural to defend yourself until your partner backs off from their argument.
However, by defending yourself or making excuses you avoid any responsibility and understanding what your partner is trying to say. This form of self-protection is another way of saying the problem isn’t me, it’s you. Unfortunately, this means the problem is left unresolved and conflict usually escalates.
Solution – Respond to criticism by expressing an acceptance of responsibility or admission of fault, even if only for part of the conflict. Try and deepen your understanding of your partner’s perspective.
E.g. “I’m sorry for not helping with the kids tonight. I had a big day at work and was feeling very tired. But I promise to help tomorrow.”
The fourth horseman is Stonewalling
Stonewalling is the last horseman and research shows it’s the most damaging behaviour to be engaged in. Typically a response to contempt, stonewalling occurs when one feels emotionally overwhelmed and withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to the other.
Learning to recognise when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed is crucial in the prevention of stonewalling.
It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough to lead to stonewalling. But this means conflict is left unresolved.
Solution – If you feel like you’re emotionally overwhelmed and find yourself stonewalling during a conflict, stop the discussion and ask your partner to take a break.
Use this time to self-soothe by reading, going for a walk, or listening to music. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, but it’s best to avoid going over what has happened in your mind and maintain your focus on distracting and calming yourself.
After taking some time to calm down, return to the conversation when you’re ready.
It is important to understand that when we are emotionally overwhelmed/charged we are less able to have a rational conversation and more likely to explode or bottle up our emotions further. Therefore, learning how to self-soothe is vital for a healthy relationship.
Do these toxic communication styles sound familiar?
The sooner you recognise these patterns in your relationship, the sooner you can begin establishing healthier communication tools. It’s crucial to your happiness and the longevity of your relationship.
Whatever the issue, if you have unhealthy communication patterns with your partner you’re likely to remain in a pattern of heightened conflict, stress, and heartache. This can make it difficult to hear each other, let alone navigate your way to a deeper understanding or a resolution together.
If you’re interested in reading more about the ‘antidotes’ for Gottman’s Four Horseman, visit this link.
If you need any assistance with improving your relationship communication patterns, feel free to contact me on 0404 032 636.
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Kylie Lepri is a registered Psychotherapist, Marriage & Relationship Counsellor, Clinical Supervisor, and Training Consultant. Since 2003 she has helped individuals and couples work through life stressors, develop new goals and create better relationships. Get Kylie’s FREE ebook: 5 Proven Strategies to help manage stress today, by joining her newsletter below.